Have apprenticeships finally come of age in the UK?

Apprenticeships have long seen as poor relations to university courses, but that is changing. Work-based programmes leading to degree-level qualifications could be key to solving the UK’s skills crisis

Tens of thousands of A-level students missed out on their first-choice university courses this year. Competition for places in the clearing system was tougher than it has been in living memory, while even high achievers had their dreams of studying medicine and dentistry crushed, as only 16% of applications for these popular courses were accepted. 

While employers view some degrees to be of limited value in the workplace, the burden of undergraduate debt keeps growing. The government has estimated that university students in last year’s intake will borrow about £45,800 each on average before they graduate. 

It’s hardly surprising that the received wisdom in the UK that university is the natural educational progression for most able students is being challenged

Rising to fill the void are apprenticeships. Once widely dismissed by students, parents and many employers as inferior to degree courses, work-based vocational learning programmes that culminate in degree-level qualifications are becoming increasingly popular. Could the nation finally be losing some of its academic snobbery?

Employers are certainly coming to view apprenticeships as an effective way to meet the evolving skills needs of their fast-changing workplaces, especially if they can get involved in designing such schemes. They include Formula One team McLaren Racing

“Apprenticeships are being developed by industry to ensure that they are relevant to its current technology and practice, and much more aligned with its future skills requirements,” says McLaren’s head of diversity, early careers and development, Kate O’Hara-Hatchley.  “Companies can create unique apprenticeship programmes that, in combination with the apprenticeship standard, will build true home-grown talent.” 

A variety of schemes

Many companies offer apprenticeship schemes running from level 3, which is equivalent to two A-level passes, through to level 7, which is considered comparable to a master’s degree in disciplines such as accounting. 

They also support a learning path that leads to the many accreditations required by certain sectors. Taking insurance as an example, Lloyd’s of London offers a level 4 professional apprenticeship, which is an important step towards the Chartered Insurance Institute diploma qualification. It also offers a level 6 digital and technology solutions professional standard, which incorporates a BSc honours degree. 

Meanwhile, Vodafone offers qualifications at levels 3, 4 and 6 in fields including software engineering, data analytics and network engineering. These programmes also cover HR and project management. 

Our programmes are key to bringing in diverse talent. They result in apprentices who are fully fledged members of their teams and have real responsibility

Leading Vodafone UK’s apprenticeship schemes is its talent and capability manager, Asha Jagatia. These schemes, she says, are “fundamental”, given that the company often finds it hard to recruit people with “business-critical skills” in a competitive employment market. 

“Our programmes are key to bringing in diverse talent. They result in apprentices who are fully fledged members of their teams and have real responsibility,” Jagatia says.

The idea that apprenticeships produce employees who tend to have a little more initiative than the average graduate recruit, who will have spent years steeped in academia, is widely accepted among employers that take on apprentices. 

“The great benefit of apprenticeships is that participants don’t just learn technical skills. They build professional skills and work-readiness at the same time, creating well-rounded talent,” O’Hara-Hatchley says.

Apprentices bring new perspectives

Sara Gomez, chief people officer at Lloyd’s of London, agrees. “Most of our apprentices are from gen Z. They’re generally more interested in, and informed about, sociopolitical, technological and environmental issues than previous generations were at their age. That means they want to start making a tangible impact as soon as possible.”

Enabling apprentices to sample academia (many schemes require them to attend college or university one or two days a week) while also earning a salary is a key benefit of such programmes. Employers report that participants view establishing some financial security rather than running up debt on a full-time degree course as a big plus. But the ability to establish their own ‘employee brand’ early on is another major attraction to apprentices, which gives them much of their drive to succeed. 

Ian Levers, technical excellence portfolio manager at engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald, describes how one of his apprentices has grasped the opportunity. “Apprenticeships really are what you make of them,” he says. “Our apprentice has done exactly this, taking on new challenges, developing herself and raising her profile on LinkedIn to grow her internal and external networks. She was named Apprentice of the Year 2021 by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors – clear evidence of what’s achievable with a growth and learning mindset.” 

Levers adds that apprentices are also important in bringing new perspectives to the business, which can learn from them. “They add significant benefits to their teams through fresh, innovative ideas that may challenge industry norms.”

We need curious minds from diverse backgrounds, so we’re looking for people with fresh perspectives and the confidence to share them

While there has been a significant increase in the number of students exploring this route who would typically have expected to go to university, it is widely agreed that apprenticeships are proving particularly useful in both attracting people who have traditionally been excluded from higher education and diversifying the talent pool generally. 

“Given that university isn’t an option for everyone owing to the cost, apprenticeships are an inclusive route,” O’Hara-Hatchley says. 

Her company runs a diversity, equity and inclusion programme called McLaren Racing Engage. This is an alliance with the Women’s Engineering Society, EqualEngineers, Creative Access and The Smallpeice Trust to attract people from under-represented groups into the motorsport industry through long-term investments in grass-roots initiatives and schemes such as mentoring programmes. 

Gomez reveals that 30% of Lloyd’s intake this September will be people from ethnic minorities (“above the market average”) while 27% will be applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is not pure altruism, she stresses, adding: “We need curious minds from diverse backgrounds, so we’re looking for people with fresh perspectives and the confidence to share them.”

Making the apprenticeship levy work

There is a range of government support packages on offer for employers seeking to provide apprenticeships. The most notable of these is the apprenticeship levy, which is funded by a 0.5% tax on the wage bills of all companies with annual payrolls exceeding £3m. 

The levy has disrupted how HR functions “deploy their talent strategies”, according to Gomez. “It can be used to attract and retain talent, providing a breadth of opportunities across a range of domains. It can be used for entry-level talent to develop both soft and technical skills, while also increasing the function-specific expertise and future management capabilities of existing staff.”

But, as with many government schemes, the system does not yet work as smoothly as it should. Critics complain that its complexity is deterring employers from participating. More than £3.3bn in levy funding has been returned unused to the Treasury since 2019, for instance.

And what of all the disappointed would-be students of medicine and dentistry? Surely apprenticeship schemes have their limits when competing with university courses? Not so. In July, Health Education England announced that students would be able to pursue a medical doctor degree apprenticeship offering the same standard of education as that provided by a traditional university course. 

Welcoming the development, Jennifer Coupland, CEO of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, neatly summed up the advance of apprenticeships in recent years. 

“For many, seeing that an apprentice can become a medical doctor will be a big surprise, but employers are driving a change in the way we think about skills in this country,” she said. “Not everyone’s journey to career success has to be the same.”